Buddy Rich Biography

Buddy Rich
Name: Buddy Rich Drums: Slingerland
Born: September 30, 1917 Cymbals: Zildjian
Origin: Brooklyn, New York Sticks: Vic Firth
Official Website, Official Facebook

Who Is Buddy Rich?

In every line of work you have icons, genius that represent the very best the world has to offer. Albert Einstein on physics, Mozart on classical music, Michael Jordan on basketball, Pelé on football; they all shined brighter than most of their peers, innovating and elevating their respective areas of expertise to a whole new level. When it comes to the art of drum set playing, Buddy Rich is THE icon.

Bernard “Buddy” Rich was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1917, to a vaudevillian family comprised of his parents Robert Rich and Bess Skolnik Rich, and his two older sisters Marjorie Rich (1910) and Jo Rich (1914). Robert had been a performer since around 1902, when he was a 15 years old young man. In his late teenage years, Robert formed a duo with singer Sam Wilson, where he worked as a tap dancer and comedian. Robert Rich met Bess Skolnik in 1906. Bess was a very good singer, and thus was included in the Rich and Wilson routine in 1908, after marrying Robert. Bess wasn’t the only one to be included in the act. In 1916, Jo Rich followed her parents footsteps dancing and singing with them live on stage.

The Rich family was filled with talented people that lived for show business. Even Marjorie, who at the beginning seemed to have no real talent as a live performer, would end by finding her way to Broadway at the early age of 15. Thus, it’s was with no surprise that the birth of Buddy Rich brought yet another performer to the family.

From day one, Buddy Rich was a very premature kid. He began crawling early, learned how to talk early, and even began walking early. He was very hyperactive, demanded a lot of attention, showcased a high level of strength for a kid of his age, and refused to be left with anyone, making his parents drag him with them everywhere they went. Buddy’s potential as a drummer and performer was discovered when he was only 18 months old.

It all happened at the Bijou Theater in Fort Wayne, Indiana, United States, while Robert and Bess (Sam Wilson had died in 1918) were rehearsing one of the songs for their stage show. Buddy Rich was sitting on the edge of the stage with a pair of drumsticks the house drummer had given him. As the song began playing he was able to play along with it, to everyone’s amazement.

Robert immediately realized that the addition of Buddy to their act could be of great value, due to the novelty factor of a very young kid playing drums. Robert came up with a stage name for Buddy – “Traps” – and since American patriotism was at a very high level, coming out of a victorious World War I, Robert took advantage of this in designing his son’s live performances. Billed as “Traps, The Drum Wonder”, Buddy Rich was dressed in a white sailor’s suit, playing drums to John Philip Sousa’s “Stars And Stripes Forever”. Buddy became a main stay in his parent’s vaudeville act at the age of 3, being hugely successful with audiences throughout 1921.

Robert never ceased to work on getting the best shows for Buddy to perform at, and was determined on making Buddy make a name for himself outside of the vaudeville circuit. After weeks of negotiation, Robert was able to get Buddy to perform on a Broadway show – Raymond Hitchcock’s “Pin Wheel Revel”. The show debuted in June of 1922 and was received with very poor reviews, except for Buddy’s performance. Following “Pin Wheel Revel”, Buddy worked for another show – “Greenwich Village Follies”. This show enabled Buddy Rich to play on Broadway once again, but was received with mixed reviews.

In 1924, Buddy Rich began performing on his own, and the Rich family saw the birth of its last member – Martin “Mikey” Rich. Almost at the same time, Buddy Rich was invited to tour the Australian Tivoli Circuit (a successful and popular Australian entertainment circuit of music hall venues that flourished from 1893 to the 1950s). Buddy Rich also played a couple of dates on both Honolulu, Hawaii and Pago Pago, American Samoa. This tour was a very successful one. Not only did Robert get to expose Buddy Rich to an international audience, who just loved Buddy’s performances, but was able to earn quite a hefty sum while doing so.

As the years went by, Buddy Rich had to change some of the things in his performance routine, to better suit his age. Under the guidance of his father, Buddy began including tap dancing, singing and comedy in his routine, besides drumming. At this time, Buddy Rich was the second highest paid child performer in show business, just behind actor Jackie Coogan. However, while Jackie was an international celebrity, Buddy struggled to get that type of acknowledgement, and was mostly seen as a vaudevillian act.

In 1929, Wall Street collapsed and the great depression began being felt all over the United States. In 1931, Robert Rich retired from vaudeville, leaving a 14 years old Buddy Rich with little options in his life. Because of the years he dedicated to his live performance as Traps, Buddy wasn’t able to get proper formal education. He got some periodic tutors and basically taught himself how to read and write. His first experience with formal schooling was a short lived one at the age of 14.

The great depression was taking theaters out of business. Some were converted into motion picture theaters, while others were able to offer both vaudeville acts and motion pictures to the audience. Consequentially, there was less work for any act in town. So, with no formal education and by having worked as an entertainer his whole life, Buddy had to fight the great depression with the only things he knew how to do right – tap dance and a drum. His need to survive through his art form made Buddy Rich work a lot for having opportunities given to him, led to the hardcore discipline he would be later known for, in regards to his way of approaching studio and live performances.

In 1936, Buddy Rich performed on the musical “Oh! Say Can You Sing?”, which opened in residence at Chicago’s Great Northern Theater. His stay in Chicago exposed him to a lot of great jazz music. Buddy Rich was getting more and more into the music of big bands like the ones from Count Basie, Benny Goodman, and Glen Gray. After returning to New York City, Buddy began feeling the need to take part in the world of jazz music.

Over the years, Buddy Rich had noticed that some of his favorite players, like Gene Krupa, Chick Webb, Babby Dodds, and Papa Jo Jones, had their own voice, their own particular way of approaching drum set playing. Buddy felt enthralled in honing his own voice as well, and began taking his drumming to a whole new level.

It was around this time that Buddy Rich had his first drum lessons with Henry Adler. One of his friends, which was Henry’s first drum student, introduced him to Henry. Henry had nothing to teach Buddy in regards to technique, since Buddy could do all the things Henry wanted to do himself, and then more. Nonetheless, Buddy couldn’t read music notation, so Henry went on to teach him that.

In 1937, Buddy Rich had his first chance to work as a jazz drummer by playing for Joe Marsala’s band at the New York Hickory House. In 1938, he moved on to playing with Bunny Berigan, and in 1939 with Artie Shaw. During the time he served as Artie’s drummer, Buddy was the drum instructor for a 14 year old Mel Brooks for a short period of time. In that same year he began playing for the Tommy Darsey Orchestra, which featured a very young singer known as Frank Sinatra.

In 1942, Buddy Rich had to vacate his spot as a drummer for Benny Carter and the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, to serve the United States marines in the Second World War. Ensuing his discharge in 1944, he rejoined the Tommy Darsey Orchestra, becoming the highest paid sideman in the history of music until then. He recorded some historical songs with the Darsey Orchestra and Frank Sinatra, earning him the title of world’s greatest drummer.

Career Highlights & Musical Projects

After playing for the Tommy Dorsey’s band for 2 more years, in 1946, Buddy Rich went on to create his own big band with the financial aid of his good friend Frank Sinatra. On the side, he continued leading different groups until the early 1950s. At that time, big bands were declining, so in 1951, and after losing a lot of money with his band, Buddy Rich had to terminate it. In 1953, he went on to play with a very interesting project by trumpeter Harry James. In the meantime, he rejoined the Tommy Darsey Orchestra for a brief period of time (from 1954 to 1955). In 1966, Buddy left Harry James to revive his big band. For the next two decades he successfully toured the world playing theaters, concert halls, festivals, colleges, and to a lesser degree, clubs.

Buddy Rich also played the role of a session drummer for many recordings. The late-career comeback recordings of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, on which he worked with pianist Oscar Peterson and his famous trio with bassist Ray Brown and guitarist Herb Ellis, were Buddy Rich’s most famous. He was also given the honor to play with such jazz greats as Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Ventura. For more details on albums, artists, songs, or projects featuring Buddy Rich, check this compilation of his discography.

Buddy Rich opened two nightclubs, Buddy’s Place and Buddy’s Place II and was a favorite on several television talk shows, like the Mike Douglas Show, the Dick Cavett Show, the Merv Griffin Show and the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. He has also made appearances in Hollywood films like Symphony Of Swing (1939), Ship Ahoy (1942), and How’s About It (1943).

Buddy Rich earned a lot of prestigious awards during his illustrious career. Here’s a quick list of some of those honors:

  • Downbeat Magazine Hall of Fame Award;
  • Downbeat Magazine Readers Poll winner (numerous times);
  • Three Grammy nominations;
  • Modern Drummer Magazine Hall of Fame Award;
  • Modern Drummer Magazine Readers Poll winner (numerous times);
  • Memorial Sloan-Kettering Neogenesis Award;
  • American Cancer Society Award;
  • Jazz Unlimited Immortals of Jazz Award;
  • Playboy Hall of Fame Award;
  • Playboy Readers Poll Award (numerous times);
  • Grammy Presidents Merit Award;
  • Honorary Doctor of Music from Berklee College of Music in Boston.

Besides his work with bands and orchestras, Buddy Rich commanded performances for kings, queens, and presidents of the United States. He played for the King of Thailand, Queen Elizabeth II of England, King Hussein of Jordan, President Ronald Reagan, President John F. Kennedy, and for Franklin Roosevelt. Buddy was also a featured soloist with Boston Pops (Boston Symphony Orchestra), Milwaukee Symphony, and the London Philharmonic.

Among the many recording Buddy Rich was a part of, there are two that stand out the most. The first one was released on Buddy’s album Swingin’ New Big Band (1966) and called “The West Side Story Medley”. This was a big band arrangement derived from Leonard Bernstein’s classic West Side Story. This medley became a central piece in Buddy’s performance, which, along with other of Buddy’s acts, was filmed in 1985 and later released on the DVD Buddy Rich and His Band: The Lost West Side Story Tapes (2002). The second one was the “Channel One Suite” by Bill Reddie. A recording of one of Buddy’s live performances of this piece can be watched on the DVD Buddy Rich and His Band: Channel One Suite (2005).

What Can We Learn From Buddy Rich?

Most of those who are not that knowledgeable about Buddy Buddy, will think that the man was all about displaying chops and playing long solos. If that’s your case, then it’s a good thing you’re reading this article, because by the end of it you’ll hopefully have a different outlook on this great drummer. He was able to play technically challenging solos, as well as music with a high level of intensity and feeling.

Buddy Rich was one of the most technically gifted drummers to ever walk our planet. He had incredible speed and control, power and touch, and all of this while playing in a suit and tie/ bow tie. However, he cared more about the music and his part in an arrangement than about anything else. His timing was machine like, his fills were perfect for the songs, and he drove his bands like no one’s business. Songs like “Green Dolphin Street” and “Time Check”, from his big band are a very good example of what we just talked about. Another cool song to listen to is “Brush Strokes”, a great example of Buddy’s way of grooving and approaching brush playing.

Buddy Rich the man was known for having a very short temper and an imposing personality when it came to handle the musicians from his band. Some years ago one of his band members recorded one of Buddy’s outburst towards the band in a tape. Obviously, this lend itself to some people quickly labeling Buddy’s behavior as inadmissible and inappropriate. We’re introducing this here not to judge Buddy Rich’s behavior, far from that. but to show his commitment, love and respect for the music he played, and for his live performances.

Buddy Rich was known for having a very short temper and an imposing personality when it came down to handling his band’s musicians. Some years ago, one of his band members recorded one of Buddy’s outbursts towards the band in a tape. We’re introducing this here not as a way to judge Buddy Rich’s behavior, but as a way to present you his level of commitment, love and respect for his live performances and the music he played.

Buddy Rich lived his entire life as a performer, an entertainer, a musician. Early on in his life, he was taught by his father to give it all he could, and to fight for what he wanted. Buddy’s career was able to survive the great depression because he worked for it, and by the end of it he was considered the best drummer in the world. It’s in circumstance like this one that even the most talented of persons can falter, especially if they lack that killer instinct, that “do or die” mentality. Buddy had all of this, which helped him keep pushing himself to always give his best under any circumstance. So, over the years, he became a very demanding musician, not only with other musicians but especially with himself.

Buddy Rich had the utmost respect for what he did as a profession. He gave it all he could and expected nothing less from the people he would hire to play in his bands. His outbursts were a result of just that, young band members who couldn’t play that well but thought they could. He couldn’t understand how these players didn’t saw how badly they were playing, and how much they were hurting the music and the performance of the band.

We had a great band that loved and respected him and he was 95% a sweetheart the whole time. The only time I saw him as he sounds on the tapes is when he had a bad back, or a band full of young guys who couldn’t play well but thought they could, who showed disrespect towards him and thought they were too good to be there (…) that tape hurts because we hear his pain and confusion as to how guys can suck and not know it.” – Ross Konikoff, trumpeter for Buddy Rich’s Band between 1975 and 1977.

Now, what can we learn from this? Plenty, actually. You see, there is no small music, no small event and no small public, there is only a small musician. You should always give all you have as a musician, for every recording session, for every live performance, for every practice session or jamming session. It doesn’t matter how small your audience is, or how small the venue or the money you’re being paid to perform, you should always strive for working at the highest level possible. This is what will ensure your growth as a musician and as a performer. The higher your level of commitment, the greater the chances you’ll have of getting somewhere with your projects and to be recognized as a great musician or performer. Don’t take anything for granted, because it takes a lot more to get to the top than it takes to fall from it.

As for his drum solos, Buddy Rich used a lot of different and cool techniques to give them a very unique personality. His playing of an extremely fast single stroke roll, with a lot of different accent patterns, was his main trademark. To give some more flare to his soloing, since speed can only take you so far, he added some very interesting and creative little nuances that made a world of difference. While playing fast single stroke rolls around the drum set, Buddy would add some crossovers to the mix. The cool thing with his crossovers is that he would cross his left arm either over or under his right arm with a lot of facility and without sticks clicking, and of course, at lightening fast speeds.

He was also very famous for the way he included his cymbals into his solos. He used to play some very cool figures on the bow and bell of the cymbals. Another cool feature of his playing was the use of the hi-hat on drum solos. He would hold the two cymbals with his left hand, while playing the underside of the bottom cymbal with the stick, and the top cymbal with his right hand, for coming up with very intricate pattern. Playing the bass drum with the right stick and rhythms with stick clicks were other of his very interesting compositional tools.

Now, if you take in consideration Buddy played at a time where the hardware quality was far from the one of today, it makes his foot technique that much impressive. He didn’t play with six-hundred dollar bass drum pedals, with direct drive and all the adjustments one can think of. He played with pedals well under par, when compared to some of the cheapest models out there. However, Buddy still managed to have a foot technique to die for, and a very precise and fast hand to feet coordination. So, the next time you decide on blaming your bass pedal of holding you back, think of Buddy Rich, and how he was able to develop a pretty solid bass drum technique with those old pedals of his, and just keep practicing.

If you want to do a more in depth study of Buddy’s technique, there are a bunch of options at your disposal. For learning about the way Buddy Rich approached drum rudiments, check the instructional book Buddy co-authored with Henry Adler in 1942 – Buddy Rich’s Modern Interpretation of Snare Drum Rudiments. To learn how to play the push-pull technique, made famous by Buddy Rich, check Jojo Mayer’s DVD Secret Weapons for the Modern Drummer. This technique allows you to play a very fast stream of notes with only one hand, by throwing the stick into the drumhead and then pulling it up. This is a great tool for playing fast 16th note Samba patterns on the ride or on the snare drum, for instance.

There are also a bunch of DVDs out there for those who want to do a more in depth study of Buddy’s playing in a band setting, drum solos, technique and showmanship tricks – At The Top (2002), Live at the 1982 Montreal Jazz Festival (2004), Buddy Rich and His Band: The Lost Tapes (2005), and Up Close (2009).

During his 68 years of playing drums, Buddy Rich became one of the main references for drummers all around the world, and from very distinctive generations. Alongside Gene Krupa, he was one of the first superstars of drumming to be as known as the guys he was hired to play with. His flashy drum solos, his incredible speed and clearness, and his very intense personality on the drum set, made him a favorite among audiences. Even today, he is one of the most known drummers among non-drummers. What a lot of you might not know is that Buddy Rich was so ahead of his time in what regarded showmanship, that he was actually the first drummer to ever play a drum solo while sitting on a drum set attached to a raiser that rotated 360º. Tommy Lee, Joey Jordison and Travis Barker were not the first ones to do it, Buddy was.

Buddy Rich died on the second day of April of 1987 from a heart attack, when he was 69 years young. He died but left a legacy that keeps him well alive in the minds and hearts of those who knew him personally, and of those who only know and love Buddy Rich the musician. Here’s a salute to the immortal Buddy Rich.




  • Rob says:

    Well written article about one of the greatest musicians and performer to ever walk the earth

  • Marky Silva says:

    Bernard “Buddy” Rich
    [ “ONE OF A KIND” ]
    Thanks Dear Lord Jesus Christ,
    ❤️ For Giving Me At Least 6 Amazing Times To See Bernard “Buddy” Rich – Play Live Performances!! 😃😍❤️👍~ THE “BUDDY RICH” BIG BAND!! And Getting The Chance To Go Aboard The Infamous BUDDY RICH “TOUR BUS” And Meeting Mr. Drums – BUDDY RICH ❤️❤️🥁🥁🥁🥁🥁🥁🎼🎼👍👍😘
    Miss You So Much ~ “BUDDY RICH” 😢😓💧💧
    ( From: Marky Silva. Tampa, Florida )

  • Chip says:

    Buddy did NOT play Vic Firth sticks until late in his career. Vic Firth sticks were pretty much unknown to most even in to the early 70s. I used them from 73 on.

    Saw Buddy have his band play at one of those HS gigs in a very small HS auditorium in NE Ohio in I believe late ’71 or early ’72. At the end of the concert for the rather small audience made up mostly of area HS students, including myself, someone asked Buddy why he didn’t use two bass drums and he replied, “If I can bitch on one why buy two?” He may have said that quote elsewhere as when I discussed it with my teacher at Ohio U, Guy Remonko, he said he’d heard that as well.

  • William Evarts says:

    Essentially the best drummer ever.

  • Sandy Mills says:

    Buddy Rich was married to my 2nd cousin Betty Jo Brown before he remarried to his wife when he passed away.I was able to take my grandmother to one of hoscocerts.A great guy

  • Bill Norris says:

    Mr Rich possessed the phrasing beauty, the absolute delicacy and power, the miraculously poetic hi hat playing, the flawless consistency throughout the whole thing… control, artistry, dexterity, delicacy, power, speed and consistency. The man had it all (and everything composed on the spot!!!).

  • roger hanson says:

    had a photo taken of me and buddy together in 1970. at the end of march, 1987, i called the hospital where buddy was at to get an update from his surgery. remarkably, i got to talk to his wife marie. she gave me an address as to where to send it and have buddy sign it. received it signed just days before april 2nd. 1987. could be the last thing he signed.

  • Jeff Riekenberg says:

    Such a treat to see him several times! I don’t blame him for wanting only the best and dedicated musicians in his band. Please check spelling on Dorsey / Darsey?? It’s Tommy Dorsey.

  • Rick Renz says:

    I had the pleasure of sitting in the balcony at the famous Meadowbrook Inn in North Jersey in the mid 1960’s to watch Buddy play . What an inspiration. And in 1972 I went on to study his methods in NYC with Joe Cusatis and learned the craft practicing to Buddy’s Mercy Mercy Album along with Oscar Petreson and Monty Alexander’s albums too. I just had my Dad’s Ludwig drumset from 1967 refurbished back to it’s original condition. Just great to be able to still play the drums. Miss you Buddy Rich.

  • lawrence rogers says:

    the greatest drummer of all time one of a kind i went to every performance in melboune when he toured here.there are no words to describe the the genius of buddy.

  • lawrence rogers says:

    the greatest drummer of all time second to none. i seen him every tme he came to australia . one of a kind .

  • Jennifer Palmer says:

    My grandfather, Sydney Kay told me that he gave Buddy Rich drumming lessons! Has anyone ever heard of him?

  • ed the drummer says:

    Buddy makes the drums sound like Butter,his touch was amazing he is an inspiration for all musicians not only drummers.

  • peter cox says:

    I have been playing drums for 50yrs and learned using the Gene Krupa books. Iadmired Krupa greatly but at no stage did I or Krupa himself ever think he was in the same class as Rich. It is such a shame that Rich, unlike Krupa,did not learn to read. I know us mere mortals could never have played the Rich solos, but if he had written them down we could have spent the rest of our lives trying. Rich’s death has left such a big hole in the jazz and particularly Big Band jazz worlds. I watch the tribute videos put out by Cathy and despair that modern drummers have lost the Rich plot. Vale Buddy (He and Krupa are competing for the drum chair again in that big band in the sky. I feel sorry for Krupa yet again)

  • Robert Rodriguez says:

    what can I say about this man, he totally dedicated his life to the art of drumming. I cannot say anymore than what has already been said about him. I call myself a drummer but next to him I feel not even close to him as a drummer. I was very lucky to see him live March 6,1985? at Evans Auditorium Southwest Texas State U.,San Marcos, TX. THE best concert I have attended bar non! He is THE standard by which all other drummers are judged.

  • Dave Briggs says:

    What can I add. Buddy Rich was/is the greatest drummer ever. He had his personality faults (and who doesn’t) but for absolute mastery of percussion, no one comes close to Buddy. Every time I see one of his performances I am amazed and inspired. I should mention here, that the other gifted drummer, Gene Krupa, was and still is an icon of the craft, but as much as I appreciate Krupa, it is Buddy Rich who predominates. If you are serious about becomming a great drummer, then watching Buddy Rich play is a fundamental requirement.

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  • drumstikvic says:

    Buddy Rich The King of all Drummers Hands down! They say he never practiced,was a pain to work with, he demanded perfection.Check out his drum work it’s pure energy. He was and still is the greatest drummer ever!!!!!!! God bless Buddy Rich.

  • Madison Casey says:

    I used to see him as a guest on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. Incredible.

  • John Lewis ( England ) says:

    I was introduced to Buddy & his drumming in 1968 at the age of 10 years old , this genius had the most unbelievable effect on my drumming and my life .

    Not a day goes by that i dont miss him greatly , seeing him over 100 times live has given me so much happiness …but his death has left a massive hole in my life , one which nothing or nobody will ever fill .

    I got quite close to the man , and yes he didnt suffer timewasters or fools , maybe the world would be a better place if more of us follwed his stance .

    No matter how long music exists for , no one person will ever be blessed with the natural talent , technique and taste that was bestowed upon him .

    For those of us who were around at the time he was , what we witnessed was something the world will never see again .

    Miss you so much Buddy

  • Panayotis (Tako) Elia Protopapas says:

    I took a B.S., an M.S. and a Ph.D. in U.S. during 69-74.I travelled throughout U.S. No drummer was getting the people up with his beat more than Buddy Rich. Everybody including Johnny Carson was trying to immitate his moves. It was impossible.He was moving his arms above the drums with such a speed that from the elbow down were invisible,including the drumsticks, which were an extension of his arms.You could see only a spread of positions occurred milliseconds apart.The positions of the arms from the elbows down were looking like two Chinese lady fans fully spread.I was 23 years old when I took my Engineer’s Degree from Metsovion Polytechnic in 1968 and left for post-graduate studies in U.S. Human body mechanics was rejecting Buddy Rich’s abilities,on the basis of bone, muscle, nerve, and vein limitations. Was wrong. Buddy Rich was super human.He took what nature gave him and stretched it to achieve the job he needed to do.

  • Rob Pelick says:

    Agreed, Daniel. For those of you who have never seen him in action, I invite you to go on youtube and watch Buddy solo…any solo….

    you will then see the most amazing drummer to ever walk the planet, bar none.

  • Daniel Busbey says:

    Oh what a treat it was to watch and hear Buddy Rich play those drums. It was an equally neat treat just to listen to him sit there on the Tonight Show and “toy” with Johnny Carson’s patience, etc. A great entertainer and the best drummer ever! I cannot believe they stick Buddy Rich’s name in a list of modern day drummers like Neil Peart and then ask people to say who’s the best. These modern guys put all together into one don’t come anywhere near Buddy Rich…shame on you if you think they do!

    • Keith Purdue says:

      I met Buddy when l was a studio drummer in L.A. He was a true gentleman and helped me with a lot of my “tricks”. I was later Roger Williams “A-Team” drummer. No One before or after has come close to Buddy’s chops or”rightness” in whatever style was needed. He Was and Is #1!!!!